How the brain processes different dimensions of argument structure complexity: Evidence from fMRI

Aya Meltzer-Asscher*, Jennifer E. Mack, Elena Barbieri, Cynthia K. Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Verbs are central to sentence processing, as they encode argument structure (AS) information, i.e., information about the syntax and interpretation of the phrases accompanying them. The behavioral and neural correlates of AS processing have primarily been investigated in sentence-level tasks, requiring both verb processing and verb-argument integration. In the current functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we investigated AS processing using a lexical decision task requiring only verb processing. We examined three aspects of AS complexity: number of thematic roles, number of thematic options, and mapping (non)canonicity (unaccusative vs. unergative and transitive verbs). Increased number of thematic roles elicited greater activation in the left posterior perisylvian regions claimed to support access to stored AS representations. However, the number of thematic options had no neural effects. Further, unaccusative verbs elicited longer response times and increased activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus, reflecting the processing cost of unaccusative verbs and, more generally, supporting the role of the IFG in noncanonical argument mapping.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-75
Number of pages11
JournalBrain and Language
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015


  • Alternating verbs
  • Argument structure
  • FMRI
  • Inferior frontal gyrus
  • Intransitive verbs
  • Reaction times
  • Syntactic movement
  • Transitive verbs
  • Unaccusative verbs
  • Unergative verbs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Speech and Hearing
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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